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Eating and Drinking in Alsace, France

Auberge à l’Illwald (“Le Schnellenbuhl”), Sélestat

The cooking here is on such a high level it seems mean to more rustic winstube to put them and the Illwald in the same pot. On the other hand, at least everyone knows where the bar is set. Winstub classics like headcheese and baeckeoffe (a stew of beef, lamb, and pork that usually includes a pig’s ear and tail) still look like themselves after chef Frank Barbier flexes his technique. They just taste better: brighter, more exciting, more gastro. The auberge and a 16-room hotel with a nicely balanced new-old feel occupy a handful of vernacular farm buildings disposed around a courtyard where Labradors torture a tethered sheep. The

Illwald is hard by a spectacular forest with a large game reserve, and beside a busy road, but I was only annoyed by the cars when walking between my room and the auberge; inside you hear almost nothing. Like the food, the dining room is a high-end spin on winstub traditions. I never walk into a restaurant and think, There’s nothing here I want to change, but the Illwald is beyond improvement. A columnar wood stove warms a corner. Kelsch woven by the Gander family in Muttersholtz drape the tables. Reverse paintings on glass are from the wonderful Arts et Collections d’Alsace boutique in Colmar. Amusing murals suggest how it might go if the animals took over: a hare and a fox ride in a nautilus-shell carriage, drawn by a man.

Eating and Drinking in Alsace, France

A l’Aigle d’Or, Osthouse

Customers call the cat who freely roams this winstub by name: it’s that kind of place. L’Aigle is the only restaurant in Osthouse, A La Ferme the only hotel, so when you book a room at the one you automatically wind up eating at the other (both places are owned by the Hellmann family). It takes three minutes to reach the hotel from the winstub, a pleasant walk that could be a lot more if Osthouse woke up a little: while attractive in the gruff way of Alsatian farming bourgs, the village is sleepy, and the fear is that sleepiness will soon result in death. A La Ferme has seven rooms, three in an early-19th-century farmhouse, which you choose for their humble antiques. The others, in an outbuilding once used for drying tobacco, are bigger and more “up-to-date.” But a night here is about the breakfast, not the rooms. The younger Madame Hellmann’s kugelhopf—a yeast cake with almonds and raisins baked in a tube pan with swirling fluted sides—is a modèle du genre. All petticoat lampshades and morbid gold swagged curtains, l’Aigle looks like Waverley Root just got up from dessert (cinnamon ice cream, say, and an apple roasted with salted butter) and the hot plates have been toasting in their warming tower ever since. L’Aigle’s menu reads like the excellent Petit Recueil de la Gastronomie Alsacienne (Editions S.A.E.P.). Matelote brings together assorted freshwater fish in a sauce of fumet, cream, and mushrooms. Pot-au-feu always begins with a bowl of bouillon, except in Alsace, where it begins with marrow quenelles in a bowl of bouillon. When I remarked on the clearness of the broth, Madame Hellmann said, “Well, it had better be, monsieur. It had better be!” L’Aigle also observes regional pot-au-feu distinctions by serving it with individual carrot, cucumber, celeriac, and beet salads. These are in addition to the root vegetables from the pot, and yet somehow the salads seem so necessary (unl

Le Clou, Strasbourg

According to Marie Sengel, the charismatic owner here and a born gatekeeper, winstube are an exclusive club with few members: Le Clou, Le Sarment d’Or in Riquewihr, Wistub Brenner in Colmar, Caveau Morakopf in Niedermorschwihr, A l’Aigle d’Or in Osthouse, Burestubel in Pfulgriesheim—and that’s it. (Strasbourg’s Zuem Strissel, she says, is a fake.) While the list is short, ignoring what most French food professionals consider to be the facts, you can’t dismiss it. Sengel is a practicing authority, and her view, like the Illwald, establishes a yardstick, use it or not. I’ve never seen Le Clou not crowded. On a soggy winter day the smell of Muenster melting over an entrecôte mingles with the steamy, doggy exhalations of boiled-wool jackets. Tables are shared, which most Americans are really not comfortable with, so you just hope for the best. The walls are hung with Hansi village scenes and the marquetry landscapes the Spindlers of Boersch have been chiseling since 1893. No matter how many times I have the winstub staple salade strasbourgeoise I still find the idea of combining Gruyère; cervelas, a sausage with the texture and color of mortadella; and oniony vinaigrette delicious but weird. When I’m in Strasbourg on a day when I know one of my meals is going to be choucroute, I make the other one this salad and a plate of marrow bones and don’t feel too deprived. Other dishes from the winstub canon include escargots à l’alsacienne (with bouillon spooned into the shells, in addition to the standard parsley-garlic-shallot butter); and high-and-fluffy cheesecake, taken with a glass of kirsch.

Eating and Drinking in Alsace, France

Chez Yvonne (“S’Burjerstuewel”), Strasbourg

This winstub was founded in 1873, but it was Yvonne Haller who, running the place from 1954 to 2001, gave it institution status as “the Lipp of Strasbourg” (the reference is to the famously snooty Paris brasserie). Haller treated the winstub like her living room, padding around in carpet slippers, acting cozy with the artists and politicians she liked, and icy to everyone else. Some now say that the food wasn’t all that great, that you went for the personnage. That is not my memory, and Haller wasn’t even nice to me. I’m sure she earned the 1990 reviews I gave her salade strasbourgeoise and a dessert the kitchen still produces, prunes poached in Pinot Noir. It would have made no sense for restaurateur Jean-Louis de Valmigère, Chez Yvonne’s new owner, to keep the name but change the look—the look, after the name, was what he paid for. It’s all still there, down to the last stork engraving. The banquettes are as cruelly padless as ever. The food is another story. Inserted into the menu are all sorts of irresistible things that are as alien to winstube as hamburgers, like a tartare of scallops and vegetables. Chez Yvonne is still basically what it was under its matriarch, but Valmigère is a businessman (he owns the disputed Zuem Strissel plus a Strasbourg taqueria, a stain he seems to have survived), and he wants it both ways: winstub + “modern bistro.” The regional dishes have nothing to apologize for. Slices of stuffed goose neck—a mixture of ground meats, pistachios, and foie gras sewn into the bird’s neck skin—are served on a block of lentils. Smoked brisket draws on the microcuisine of the Alsatian Jews. There’s something cavemanish, in a good way, about the pork shank braised in beer and orange bitters, its gelatinous sleeve of fat shrunk back like a fallen sock. Hold the sautéed potatoes.

La Stub, Obernai

La stub is part of the large Le Parc hotel complex in the semi-countryside a 10-minute walk from the center of Obernai. If you linger in one medieval town in the region, Obernai should be it. Others on the Route du Vin claim to be prettier, but nobody takes them too seriously (unless the town is Riquewihr). The appearance of storks traditionally signals spring in Alsace; in Obernai they make their nests atop the neo-Gothic church of Saints Pierre et Paul. With 62 rooms, two pools, and a spa, Le Parc enshrines a certain idea of taste and comfort you may have to be French, middle-class, and from someplace other than Paris to appreciate. Still, it’s not a hardship to spend the night here. Rooms decorated in an Alsatian idiom, i.e., with a lot of wood, have more atmosphere than those done in a “contemporary” style. Having established a serious restaurant, La Table, at Le Parc, owner Marc Wucher opened a winstub the way fancy chefs in other parts of France open bistros. He did a magicianly job creating it from scratch, filling it with paneling salvaged from a church, Betschdorf steins, and a kachelofen below regulation rails for drying tea towels. La stub specializes in heart-attack food, but what a way to go. Every winstub does a whole brick of breaded-and-deep-fried Muenster; judging this treatment too tame, chef Jacky Schweighoeffer coats it instead with grated potatoes and onions bound with egg. “Deep-fried” isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of tête de veau, but Schweighoeffer finds a way, enfolding it in brik pastry. A boat-size meringue glacée comes with enough ice cream for an eight-year-old’s birthday party. The too-muchness makes sense when you learn that Schweighoeffer is also the chef at La Table. Somersaults aside, he dresses a marbly terrine of foie gras and pork cheeks with Melfor vinaigrette, and you have to like him for it. Produced in Alsace, Melfor is

Le Marronnier, Stutzheim

If you knew in advance that Le Marronnier had 500 seats you’d never go. But forget everything you’ve suffered in French restaurants that accept groups and, when staying in Strasbourg (at Le Chut, l’hôtel du moment), book a cab and cover the 6 1/2 miles to Stutzheim. Built as a farmhouse in 1748, Le Marronnier was re-created as a winstub in 1990 by the Friederich family, who removed the plaster masking the beautiful half-timbered façade and transformed the courtyard into a shady spot for savoring pork-liver quenelles. Among the warren of dining rooms, La Salle Bleue is in a newer addition, but it’s at least as adorable as the older spaces, with a massive stepped kachelofen, an integrated bench following the oven’s zigzagging contours, and a quantity of embroidered samplers. Le Marronnier is not always besieged by groups; there were none the night I was there, only what looked like local families. They come for the flammekueche, which is also known as tarte flambée, which tourists insist on calling Alsatian pizza, which irritates the Alsatians to death. What it is is a round of rolled-out bread dough topped with smoked lardons, thinly sliced onion (both uncooked), and crème fraîche. Three things to look for in a flammekueche are blackened edges; just a scraping of cream; and very little onion. By these measures Le Marronnier’s is perfect. Purists reject variations with cheese, and you can see why: when flammekueche loses its innocence, it loses its allure. Venison with chestnuts and grand veneur, the old-school large-game sauce, is more to the point, especially since it’s served with nubs of pasta: the winstub workhorse spaetzle.

Eating and Drinking in Alsace, France
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